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What is a leavening agent?

Ever wonder why that soufflé puffs up so high and then falls so fast? Why are your pancakes flatter than, well, pancakes? Why does your bread either rise and overflow your oven or sit there like a rock? Don't know your baking powder from your baking soda? What gives life to yeast? Learn how to get a rise out of your baked goods.

The key to getting a rise out of your baked goods is the use of proper leavening agents. The most common leavening agents found in the basic kitchen are baking soda, baking powder, and yeast. When mixed with a liquid, they produce carbon dioxide gas, which causes batter or dough to rise when heated. Another method of leavening is the use of whipped egg whites, which traps air in bubbles. The frothy egg whites are folded into the batter, and when baked, the egg white bubbles get firm, holding the air in. Voila...light and puffy baked goods.

Leavener history

The Egyptians were known to have used yeast as a leavening agent some 5,000 years ago. The Mexican culture refers to yeast doughs as "almas," which translates to "souls," because they seem so spirited in rising. Baking powder became popular in the 1850's, along with self-rising flour (baking powder mixed with flour.) James A. Church began marketing sodium bicarbonate as baking soda under the Arm & Hammer label in 1867. Baking soda was previously known as saleratus, a combination of the Latin "sal" (salt) and "aeratus" (aerated.) In 1889, William M. Wright developed the double-acting baking soda we know today, marketed under the label Calumet.

Yeast starters have been traditionally handed down over the ages from family to family, each keeping it alive over the years. A portion was used from each batch, with the remainder being fed by adding equal parts of flour and water, and permitted to grow for another week or so. These starters are also known as friendship starters. Note: Starters that take on an orange or pink color and develop an unpleasant acrid odor should be discarded, due to the indication of undesireable bacteria present.

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